Reviewed by Randall Radic
Chet Nicholson, who is the author of Dream Room, is an attorney. Dream Room is his first book. And it is – hands down – one of the best true crime books to be published – ever. That is a bold and categorical statement, but it is an undeniable fact.
Dream Room is the true story of the Dixie Mafia, which is sometimes called the Southern Mafia. Unlike the more famous Sicilian Mafia, members of the Dixie Mafia were linked only by crime and not by family or ethnicity. Their criminal activities included moonshine, bootlegging, gambling, drug trafficking, dog fighting, burglary, prostitution, and murder. They achieved the peak of their power between 1960 and the end of the 1980s.
“The Strip” in Biloxi, Mississippi, was ground zero for the Dixie Mafia. Indeed, the title of the book – Dream Room – refers to a strip joint in Biloxi. It was owned and operated by Mike Gillich, Jr., who was the unofficial Godfather of the organization. Gillich, who was also known affectionately as “Junior,” owned a string of motels, nightclubs, and a bingo parlor.
One of Junior’s henchmen was a goon named Kirksey Nix, who was a singularly unimaginative worm of reckless dynamism. The story swirls around Nix and Junior as they ruthlessly intimidated and murdered anyone who got in the way of their criminal activities. Which means a lot of people, including a judge and his wife, ended up dead.
The Dixie Mafia had only one law, which was akin to a Biblical commandment: Thou shall not snitch to the cops. Of course, since most criminals subscribe heavily to the doctrine of self-interest, the rule was often violated. And in the end, Junior fractured the law with vigorous enthusiasm. To relate how and why would vitiate the delicate forces of the story. Needless to say, the episode seethes with the arithmetic of necessity, contingency, and negotiation. It is the narrative of the justice system – if you want to play, you have to pay.
Nicholson’s raw ability in storytelling is fantastic. And it is this talent that gives the tale its resonant vibrations. Every word and paragraph is designed to titillate interest and, at the same time, entertain. Most writers lose their readers because they try to charm them with verbal glitz. Which means they forget to tell the story. They’re so busy peddling Las Vegas-like neon that the reader needs sunglasses to see through the glare. Nicholson, either by plan or by innate talent, avoids making that mistake. Instead, he cedes ultimate authority to the story. Which means the story is the Star of the book, not the special effects. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.
What is more, Nicholson lets the story develop through the actions of the characters and their dialogue. Dream Room places a premium on conversation. And it’s obvious that Nicholson has a real ear for conversational quirks. Listening to the characters speak induces a delicious rippling sensation through the reader’s diaphragm. That’s the way people really talk! People don’t talk like robots in real life. People aren’t machines, spewing out perfect grammar and syntax.
Try it this way: Nicholson’s dialogue is as good as or better than that of Elmore Leonard.
Dream Room is a supercharged book. It has guts, which means it has rhythm and motion, and that means it has energy. It’s alive! Don’t miss this one.